Saturday, 12 October 2013

Hometown Memories (Part One)

When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood.”

Sam Ewing

I’ve just been listening to a radio discussion about the potential dangers of garden trampolines.  
Should children be allowed to play on them? Are the parents who buy them being irresponsible? 
There were some detailed and horrific outlines of the injuries that can occur if these trampolines aren’t used properly.

Clearly there were no such discussions in the 1970’s. On the contrary, I’m quite convinced there were people specifically employed to invent the most dangerous and torture inducing toys imaginable. Anyone who owned a Raleigh Chopper will know what I’m talking about.

It might be difficult to make out from these rather ancient photographs just how dangerous our old swing was. Our innocent smiles hide a more sinister truth. 
 Such apparatus would definitely be illegal nowadays. In fact, it’s hard to comprehend how we didn’t die whilst playing on it. Rusty nails, jagged edges and sharp corners; there was nothing child friendly about our swing. Two metal pokers with sharp hooks at either end hung from dangling chains, making the seat height adjustable. In keeping with the danger theme, the seat was one solid lump of thick wood, perfect for high speed collisions with fragile skulls. And just in case the swing wasn’t deadly enough on its own, my Dad cemented two concrete slabs in place underneath. Well, he wouldn’t want his lawn getting damaged if we fell off from a great height now, would he?

In the early days, the swing was painted dark bottle green but latterly it was spruced up with blue gloss (most likely some hideous lead based paint) to match the washing poles.
 Looking back, our swing was rarely used for its intended purpose. More often than not it was a den, a wigwam, a climbing frame, a spaceship; somewhere to tie an unsuspecting victim to during a game of High Chaparral. Our favourite modification (due to my horse mad sister) was to remove the rods and seat, slide a plank of wood across the bars, use the seat as a saddle and Dad’s belts as stirrups/reins. This particular invention came at the height of Harvey Smith mania and made our garden very popular with the local kids.

I still remember the giddy excitement when Mum told us we were getting a swing. I must have been around 7 years old. It was second hand, as were most things from my childhood, and it arrived strapped to the top of a van one Saturday morning during an episode of Swap Shop. I remember watching eagerly from the kitchen window as my Dad dug a square hole in the grass, wellies deep in mud, pipe hanging from the side of his mouth (This is how I will always visualise the Dad from my childhood - a cross between Tony Benn and Tom from the Good Life.) Our swing was totally unlike any you might get nowadays. Toys were built to last back then! This beauty took three men to carry it down the driveway and five-foot deep, cement-filled foundations to support it. I think that’s why it was still there well into my teens; a permanent fixture which gradually stopped being a plaything and evolved into a place to hang out with friends, a meeting area and (much later) smoker’s corner. I was well into my High School years when we finally got rid it. It was sad seeing it being dug up and even sadder having to say goodbye to the memories that were engrained in the flaking paint. And of course, nobody else wanted it because by this point most sensible parents realised that small heads were not likely to survive the impact from the four inch thick wooden seat.

Now, where the swing once stood, there is a neatly kept patio. Underneath the slabs lies a pet cemetery, an array of animal skeletons, increasing in size and in various stages of decomposition. In a thousand years’ time this little patch of soil is going to baffle archaeologists who will ponder why goldfish, budgies, terrapins, cats and hamsters all lived and died in such close proximity to one another.

It astounds me that nobody ever had an accident on that swing. Well, that’s not strictly true. There was that one time my friend and I had a “show-jumping” competition (Harvey Smith again) which involved swinging as high as possible before leaping off and flying over the washing line in a tumble of screams and windmilling limbs. We were having way too much fun to even consider the risk of head injuries or garrotting. Back then accident prevention was something that had only been discussed at Tufty Club or those dreadful public safety adverts which Mum always turned off because they gave us nightmares. Health advice came in the form of being told not to stand on the cold lino with wet hair, not to mistake the rhubarb leaves for lettuce and definitely not to make a face in case the wind changed and we were left that way for eternity.

In the early eighties we were invincible! So, with my best friend egging me on I built up enough height and speed to let go and propel myself through the air. Only something went wrong. One of the sharp hooks caught the pocket of my corduroy dungarees and as I jumped off the seat I was violently yanked back with the force. I heard an almighty rip and the entire pocket was torn away. I did a backwards somersault and landed heavily on the concrete slabs but somehow I managed to duck before the ten tonne seat came slamming back down. My friend laughed so hard she snorted some of her Wham Bar out of her nostrils. 
It never occurred to us that I nearly died that day. I just got back on the swing, minus a pocket, and tried again. We were particularly bouncy in those days. There was a lot of getting back up, dusting yourself off and trying again. Good practise for life, I guess.

I don’t know how I managed to survive my childhood. Perhaps I was just very lucky. Perhaps 70’s kids were built like their toys – tough and made to last. But perhaps safety doesn’t happen by accident. There could be some truth in the proverb, ‘It is better to be a thousand times careful than once dead.’ As a mother I am constantly torn between the decision to keep my son safe at the same time as allowing him the freedom to explore and understand his abilities. I’m not sure whether we are ruining our young people’s childhoods by wrapping them up in cotton wool. Play allows children to learn and develop. In particular, adventurous play exposes them to the scary world in which they will live, a world that is not free from risk. We need to allow them opportunities to learn how to cope with what lies ahead. 

I’m very grateful that I lived in a time when I could feel hot tarmac beneath my bare soles, a time when every day felt like the start of a new adventure. I am more grateful that I did not live in a time when schools had to cancel Sports Day due to wet grass or ensure children were wearing goggles before handling Blu-Tack. It makes me sad to hear about schools imposing bans on snowballs and conkers, although in these times of ‘claim culture’ I can understand such drastic measures. 

All my happy (and most vivid) childhood memories revolve around death-defying acts – sliding across the frozen pond down at the farm, standing on the crossbar of my bike whilst steering the handlebars with a long piece of string, leaning over the edge of the quarry letting only the wind hold our weight. NOT that any of these activities come highly recommended *stern mother/teacher face* I was one of the lucky ones. Not everybody had that privilege. But when I think of the laughter, the scabs and bruises, the ripped corduroys and the sense of freedom, I know I wouldn’t have changed my childhood for the world.

We made our own entertainment in the early 80's

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